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Captain Charles Norton Swan lived his dream life on Bald Head Island, lighting the lamp to put the new Cape Fear Lighthouse into service in 1903 and then proceeding to run the Cape Fear Light Station for the next 30 years. Modern Bald Head Island visitors can now temporarily live like Cap’n Charlie, thanks to three newly renovated lighthouse keeper cottages that are available for rental.

The three wood frame dwellings overlooking the wide beach were originally built in the early 1900s, with one housing Cap’n Charlie and his family and the other two occupied by his two assistants. There were also two storehouses behind the houses, one of which has been rebuilt and is used for storage.

“The lighthouse keeper cottages are symbolic of Bald Head Island’s rich and unique history,” says Kent Mitchell, president and CEO of Bald Head Island Limited. “Our motivation in renovating them was to restore and preserve the character of the homes, providing guests with a first-hand opportunity to experience the island’s history for themselves.”


Located on the southeastern end of Bald Head Island, the cottages make for a truly unusual place to stay on a unique island. They’ve been completely renovated and furnished with all modern conveniences, including a gourmet kitchen with top-end appliances, cable television, telephone, and a peaceful porch and deck overlooking the wide dunes and beach. Visitors will also enjoy many historic black-and-white photos of Cap’n Charlie and the island in earlier times including a print of the cottages and lighthouse from the early-1900s.

After arriving by ferry, cottage guests and their luggage take a tram along Federal Road, which was once an island-long railroad that was used to shuttle the metal trusses used to build Cap’n Charlie’s Cape Fear Lighthouse. Once the rails were abandoned, Cap’n Charlie and his crew used the route to reach their lighthouse and cottages from their creekside boat house (which still stands and is called “Old Boat House” on most Bald Head maps). Just before arrival at the cottages, the tram driver will point out the old concrete pilings where Cape Fear Lighthouse once stood, as well as the office and excellent retail shop for the Bald Head Island Conservancy.

Each cottage comes with a four-person golf cart to explore the island. Most cottage guests quickly locate Maritime Market a mile or so back down Federal Road. Here, gourmet meats, fresh seafood, and a huge wine selection can all make for a tasty time back in the cottage’s kitchen. In addition, the River Pilot Cafe, Eb & Flo’s Steambar, and other island options make for enjoyable dining options.

The cottages also apparently come with their own ghosts--or at least ghost stories--which Cap’n Charlie delighted in detailing before his death in 1964. One is Theodosia Burr Alston, who disappeared off the North Carolina coast when her boat was attacked by pirates as she was on her way to visit her father, Aaron Burr. Another is a red-haired woman often referred to as Mrs. Cloden, who died of starvation in one of the cottages after being shipwrecked on the island. A third ghost apparently appears as a dapper man in a pinstripe suit.


There is a long history of lighthouses on Bald Head Island. Thanks to preservation and research efforts, much of the history of lighthouses on the island can still be explored by visitors.

North Carolina’s first lighthouse was actually built on the island in 1796. In 1817, it was replaced a short distance away by Bald Head Lighthouse (“Old Baldy”), which was then replaced by Cap’n Charlie’s beloved Cape Fear Lighthouse in 1903. When the Oak Island Lighthouse was activated in 1958, the Cape Fear Lighthouse was torn down. However, Old Baldy remains the state’s oldest standing lighthouse.

After a night in one of the cottages, the best place to continue an exploration of the island’s lighthouse history is along the banks of Bald Head Creek, in the shadow of Old Baldy. Here, the Smith Island Museum of History is located in a reconstructed 1 1/2-story lighthouse keeper’s cottage from the 1850s one of three once located around Old Baldy.

The interesting little museum features an eclectic collection of Smith Island memorabilia, including Capt. Charlie’s pocket watch, a Lighthouse Service engineer’s uniform, several Civil War artifacts and lots more. From there, it’s a short stroll to Old Baldy, where a circular wooden staircase leads 108 steps into the lighthouse’s lantern room and a great view of the Bald Head Island and the entire Smith Island complex.

Old Baldy was originally built with brick and then covered in stucco that, after 188 years, is slowly wearing away. Preservation efforts to patch the exterior accounts for the lighthouse’s splotchy appearance (it was originally all white). Earlier this year, the not-for-profit Old Baldy Foundation began the long process of stabilizing and repairing the exterior and the interior of the lighthouse. Fund-raising efforts, along with museum and lighthouse entrance fees, island tour fees, and welcome donations, will all be used to make sure this North Carolina landmark survives.

“No one wants to see Old Baldy become unsafe to climb or crumble to the ground,” says Ann Mills, executive director of the Old Baldy Foundation. “I have confidence in this community, the state, and the federal government that, through private donations and grants, Old Baldy will be around for generations to come.”

The Old Baldy Foundation also runs fascinating Bald Head Island historic tours that Cap’n Charlie would certainly have loved. Along with entrance to the museum and Old Baldy, the island tour includes lots of fascinating history about the island, including a stop at the pilings from the Cape Fear Lighthouse and interesting anecdotes about Cap’n Charlie’s life on the island.

If Charlie Swan could see the renovation and activity around his hold home place, he’d probably beam as brightly as his old lighthouse once did nearby.


Named for Captain Charles Norton Swan, two cottages, Captain Charlie's I and Captain Charlie's III, each feature three bedrooms and two bathrooms, sleeping up to six people.  Captain Charlie's II offers two bedrooms and one bathroom, sleeping four.  All are typically rented on a weekly basis from Friday to Friday, but they also may occasionally be available for nightly rental.  To rent one of the renovated lighthouse keeper cottages, call 800-432-7368 or visit www.baldheadisland.com.

For more information about visitng the Smith Island Museum of History and Old Baldy, call 910-457-7481 or visit www.oldbaldy.org.  For historic tour reservations, call 910-457-5003.